When I was 7 years old my parents sent me to the¨Oriental Gymnasium¨ in Saint-Petersburg, a gymnasium in Russia is a school specializing in humanities. The proud title of an ¨oriental” gymnasium it received because Chinese was taught there. Back then it was the only school in St. Petersburg that taught Chinese.
Years passed. I did well in all my Chinese classes, I even took part in local Chinese language competitions, never getting very far though. I took interest in Chinese culture, I read Chinese authors (in translation), I also read extensively on Chinese mythology and religion.
The first Chinese-speaking country I visited was Taiwan, and I was quiet enchanted. Returning to Russia I started watching Taiwanese dramas and variety shows, listened to Taiwanese pop. Sadly, they all were more or less the same, I soon grew out of them, besides, German demanded my undivided attention. 4 years of no Chinese followed.
Then Shanghai happened. In Shanghai I spent two years, bewildered by how slow my progress was. Yes, I could speak and write in Chinese. But watching a movie without subtitles? Listening to a radio program? Having a conversation with an uneducated local? Hell no. It took me two years to get to this point in German. Ok, maybe two and a half.
Then three more years in Russia with no Chinese. And here I am again – in Shanghai. My level is as good as it has ever been, and it is still only B2. I still struggle when I watch a news segment, I can´t read a short story without a dictionary, I still make mistakes with my tones, leading to confusion, I can´t always understand what is being said to me (in general, I understand characters better than spoken Chinese).
Of course, I have a theory to explain why it has happened. Sometimes I think that there is a conspiracy in Mainland China to prevent foreigners getting an actual fluency in Chinese, however, it didn´t stop some of my classmates. Some. While most have forgetten 100% of our 10-year grade school course.
I am reading Mo Yan in English, struggling through a collection of short stories in Chinese, studying long Chinese articles on politics, economics and culture… And, yet, I can´t help but ask myself every now and then… Is it even possible to learn Chinese?